University of St. Thomas, booted for D-III success, gets Division I invite

MINNEAPOLIS -- A Division III school that was "involuntarily" removed from its league because it was too dominant has been invited to make the jump to Division I athletics.

The University of St. Thomas, which was expelled from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in May for "competitive" reasons, has received an invitation to join the Summit League, a Division I mid-major conference, officials announced Friday.

Schools are barred by NCAA rules from making the leap from Division III to Division I, but St. Thomas has applied for a waiver. If granted, the school, which has 20 sports teams, would begin to compete in the Summit League in 2021, following its final two years in the MIAC.

The fate of its football team and men's and women's hockey teams have not been determined, however, since the Summit League does not sponsor the sports. North Dakota State, a seven-time FCS champion, plays football in the Missouri Valley Conference, while its other sports, including men's and women's basketball, compete in the Summit League.

The Star Tribune reported that St. Thomas is exploring the possibility of joining the Pioneer League or the Missouri Valley Conference, where four Summit League members -- North Dakota State, Western Illinois, South Dakota and South Dakota State -- currently compete in football. North Dakota, another Summit League member, will join the Missouri Valley Conference in football next season.

In May, MIAC officials threatened to disband the league if St. Thomas remained a member. The school has won six MIAC football championships since the start of the 2010 season. The Tommies are 1-0 in league play this season after a 74-14 victory over Hamline University on Sept. 21.

The private Catholic liberal arts university has about 6,200 undergraduates, double the enrollment of the next-closest schools in the MIAC.

"After extensive membership discussions, the University of St. Thomas will be involuntarily removed from membership in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference," the league said in a statement in May. "The MIAC Presidents' Council cites athletic competitive parity in the conference as a primary concern. St. Thomas will begin a multiyear transition immediately and meanwhile is eligible to compete as a full member of the MIAC through the end of spring 2021."

The move to Division I will require a substantial investment from St. Thomas. Right now, St. Thomas spends about $1.1 million on football, per Department of Education data. South Dakota State ($4.1 million) and North Dakota State ($5.6 million) dwarf that number.

St. Thomas would become the second Division I football program in the state, along with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, which could create a local rivalry between the two schools.

"Joining the Summit League would be a unique and exciting opportunity for St. Thomas, allowing us to significantly expand our impact and reach," Julie H. Sullivan, the school's president, said in a statement. "It is a strong Midwest Division I conference that includes both public and private competitors. Under the direction of Commissioner Tom Douple, the conference has grown in strength and success over the past several years."

There's no clear sense about when the NCAA would decide on this, athletic director Phil Esten told the Associated Press, though the expectation is the university will receive word at some point during the current academic year

"There's no blueprint for this or no roadmap," Esten said. "I do think we have a pretty compelling case to make, but it's impossible to speculate."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.